The Ever-Pertinent Theme of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery

The joys of a public stoning may have evolved into more metaphorical methods, but the “tradition” remains very much alive in the present. Just as it was in Shirley Jackson’s own time, having released “The Lottery” in the summer of 1948. With World War II still being freshly ended, there remained the dark pall of those dictators who rose to prominence as a result of “stoning,” for all intents and purposes (and using understatement in most cases), the scapegoats that they made their “subjects” believe were at fault for something out of anyone’s control. Yet despite this recently reiterated lesson that placing a flogging sort of blame on any one person or sect of people leads to often catastrophic results, the mistakes of the hot off the press past were already being repeated, with the likes of the insanely named House Un-American Activities Committee becoming more fervent about its witch hunts after putting government official Alger Hiss on trial, the establishment of the State of Israel that would lead to further inevitable conflict with Palestine and the assassination of a peace figure like Mahatma Gandhi. It all led one to believe that, when it came to ceasing the practice of stoning, it had only translated into more violent loopholes. 

Thus, for Jackson to set the narrative of her tale within the supposedly idyllic landscape of a quaint village was a precursor to the Lynchian method of showing that some of the most sinister acts of all can take place in small town America precisely because they are stereotyped as the most “normal” and “ordinary” of milieus. The “normalcy” of the event in question–of the lust for inflicting this level and variety of human pain–is manifest from the start, and in the callously rote preparations made by the children of the village. For example, “Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced this name ‘Dellacroy’—eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys.” The precision of the details wielded by Jackson does not go unnoticed here, with her deliberate callout of the villagers’ lack of refinement patent in their inability to correctly pronounce Delacroix. The majority, after all, is nothing if not completely lacking in grace and erudition. 

Alas, the “majority rules” philosophy has been the foundation of so much of life on Earth that we’ve grown accustomed to the savagery that such a governing method entails. Even if the power is concentrated within one rich white man, was it not the body politic who elected him (even if those votes were manipulated by an outside country)? And it only takes one power holder (yes, usually a white man) to puppeteer the blind rage of the masses to his own advantage. The mob mentality is what democracy is founded on, and why it makes it so impossible to govern a mass as unruly as Americans. One imagines it would be even more or as difficult to do with the Chinese, which is why, apparently they operate under an oppressive dictatorship. And even trickled down at the most local level, the white men representing the hordes are a fairly accurate summation of its doltish demands. Case in point, Mr. Summers, “a round-faced, jovial man,” is the person tasked with running the lottery, as well as “the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program.” He’s the one with the time to do it, yet another detail that speaks to how and why we end up with the people who govern us and determine so much of our lives: they have the time… and the money. 

As for the extent to which the superstition inherent to “tradition” is, it even seeps as far down as the box used to draw the slips from. Each piece of paper being blank except for one with a black dot on it–whoever gets that is the “marked” one for the stoning. The one believed helps ensure a prosperous agricultural season. Changing the box might upset the balance as much as eliminating the lottery itself, so it is that “Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box.”

At the same time, it’s quite telling to note that Mr. Summers is willing to amend certain aspects of the tradition without feedback from the populace because it’s too inconvenient for him to endure. Namely, “Because so much of the ritual had been forgotten or discarded, Mr. Summers had been successful in having slips of paper substituted for the chips of wood that had been used for generations. Chips of wood, Mr. Summers had argued, had been all very well when the village was tiny, but now that the population was more than three hundred and likely to keep on growing, it was necessary to use something that would fit more easily into he black box.” That Jackson mentions much of the ritual had been forgotten makes it seem all the more absurd that the townspeople should continue to uphold what little they do know about it, all in the name of keeping something archaic and outmoded alive. The allegory for modern politics (even in Jackson’s era) cannot be ignored in this sense as we see, increasingly, how little our present system of government functions for the benefit of anyone at the bottom of society’s ladder (which is to say, the bulk of Earth’s population). Yet we still adhere to it, go through the motions of supporting it by casting a vote for a two-party system (both sides of which will always represent their own interests–a.k.a. the interests of the corporation). We tell ourselves it’s all in good faith, in support of the “institution” created by our invisible “forefathers” (such paternalization in this godforsaken existence) whose presence remains indelible on every facet of existence. We don’t really know why, and to examine it further would tear at the already thin thread holding the fabric of “civilized society” together. 

Still, we tell ourselves that we’ve “evolved.” That things have really changed because of the numerous “amendments” to the same fundamentally flawed concept. So it is that the alteration of the tasks assigned to the official in charge of the lottery have made the townspeople believe they’ve “modernized” the tradition enough. But, again, a backward practice cannot be brought into the “new world” if it is, in fact, a backward practice. Nonetheless, they console themselves with notions of progress in recalling how “at one time… there had been a recital of some sort, performed by the official of the lottery, a perfunctory, tuneless chant that had been rattled off duly each year; some people believed that the official of the lottery used to stand just so when he said or sang it, others believed that he was supposed to walk among the people, but years and years ago this part of the ritual had been allowed to lapse. There had been, also, a ritual salute, which the official of the lottery had had to use in addressing each person who came up to draw from the box, but this also had changed with time, until now it was felt necessary only for the official to speak to each person approaching.”

These gradual changes being but a smokescreen to fortify the illusion of amelioration, the firmly implanted gender roles of the village are also a factor in keeping the women down at heel while simultaneously convincing them that surely their town must be modern if it’s even considering doing away with the tradition altogether, as they’ve heard some of the neighboring towns have. But men like Mr. Summers wouldn’t dream of putting the crops at risk that way, baiting the gods, as it were–and the implementation of real change is nothing more than hearsay. Considering that the story came out after a blip in time when women were permitted the same luxuries as men while they were away at war (e.g. working in factories, in offices, on baseball teams, etc.), it seems appropriate to note that all drastic change results primarily in sending those who briefly secured it back even farther than when they started. As though they need to be reminded of their true “place” and who’s “in charge.” 

Otherwise known as: the old guard. Whether there are any members of it left alive or not, there is always a large enough group of people who were indoctrinated by the old guard to pass on their “traditions” and beliefs. To keep the gate closed to genuine development. So it is that we have the oldest man in the village, Old Man Warner, scoffing when a fellow onlooker tells him others are considering doing away with the lottery. He balks, “‘Pack of crazy fools… Listening to the young folks, nothing’s good enough for them. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to go back to living in caves, nobody work any more, live that way for a while. Used to be a saying about Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon. First thing you know, we’d all be eating stewed chickweed and acorns. There’s always been a lottery,’ he added petulantly. ‘Bad enough to see young Joe Summers up there joking with everybody.’”

Chalking up the notion of putting an end to the stoning and killing of a randomly selected villager to youthful folly is most definitely in keeping with how older generations have viewed the “young folk” for centuries, clamoring for things like peace and eco-consciousness. The sense of anticipation and nervousness over the crowd, as well as Tessie Hutchinson’s indignation over the unfairness of how little time her husband was given to select a slip of paper from the box prompts Old Man Warner to rue, “It’s not the way it used to be… People ain’t the way they used to be.” Oh but they are. They’ve just packaged themselves in new “faux evolved,” recycled wrapping. We’re all still willing to cast the first stone, once the lynch mob gets going.

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